Presentation on theme: "Return to Liberia Aldo Benini August 2008. When I surfaced in the swimming pool, the rain was so fast that I had trouble breathing. I had walked the 200."— Presentation transcript:
When I surfaced in the swimming pool, the rain was so fast that I had trouble breathing. I had walked the 200 m from the hotel to the pool in a flooded street. Returning, I struggled with a river and promptly tripped into a sinkhole, hurting my sheen. I was reminded of an old Red Cross legend, of a smallish Swiss delegate being washed down a gutter and saved from drowning in a manhole just barely. I had been in Liberia last in 1993, when the rockets were falling on Monrovia. Now the country was in peace, but the force of the rains had not relented.
We were to visit a Red Cross center for Child Advocacy and Rehabilitation, code for a vocational training center for war-traumatized adolescents, many of them former child soldiers, in danger of lapsing into delinquency, prostitution and fresh violence if they could not be stabilized enough to survive in the harsh world out there. For a long distance, we rode past street markets, under the rain alternating between drizzles and reckless downpours. The air was pleasantly warm, not oppressively hot. Vendors were concerned about the integrity of their wares more than about their own physical comfort.
We crossed a wide river on a bridge that miraculously had withstood the war. A dirt road, with deep puddles, led to the center hidden from the main road, yet massive besides the modest homesteads of a place called Brewerville City, difficult to tell from brush and farms. We were welcomed into the neat and dry atmosphere of a meeting hall, past stalls of trade samples manufactured by the trainees, baked goods, stew and rice, and drink filling the U-shaped verandas, the whole reminding me of church bazaar bustle in my early childhood days.
The stunningly beautiful Tina sold me batik pieces that she and her colleagues had dyed. I noticed the strength of her arms, which at one time may have brandished an AK-47. I asked how a particular batik pattern was crafted. The women tried to explain. An instructor intervened, telling them, without cause apparent, that this was not the way to talk to visitors. A male accountant seated not far from us was very worried that I should get the right change back. The conversation with the batik women died. I was left with beautiful souvenirs, photos that commit the moment to lasting memory, and a glass wall between black youth and white man.
Inside the hall, a well ordered celebration program made visiting parents, Red Cross notables, center staff and us foreigners aware and appreciative how life-changing, life-saving such shelters can be for young people who had many inroads with evil. The coordinator gave everybody their due recognition. He illustrated the challenges, pointing out that when the youth were taken in, they were so neglected they could not even speak properly. Thus I expected some trainee to get the chance to address the audience. But only adults did. They would address the children, in a script that was comprehensible to the adult visitors only. And the children? They spoke to us jubilantly dancing.
I regretted the lost opportunity to learn anything personal from the former child soldiers, on their work and plans for the future, if not on the painful things that they were leaving behind. I did have happy conversations with several instructors and with the chairman of the parents association, a distinctly gentleman character. I parted grateful, sad, charmed, richer in love and in gifts for my loved ones at home. No sooner were we back in the rain-soaked city than we saw exemplars of youth who had not had that kind of saving chance - dejected, miserable, fighting to survive.
When you are out there, things will happen. Bad breasts, open moles, side problems – to name but the most ordinary ones. Worse if you are the man or woman who cant born, or your manpower is nonfunction. Want to be cleaver in school? Malaria, worm, snake bite. You will turn to Herbalist Mami Water Kakata, with his mermaid, snake medicine, good luck and mobile phone number. And, as my friend said, you will HOPE that your diagnosis is only rhumatism. And not what you get if you have to sell your body, run drugs or scavenge the garbage.
But ultimately, all storms die down – the storms of life as much as the rain storms of Liberia. If it was a bad storm, we are chastened, hurt, or drowned in the gutter. A good storm leaves us cleansed, refreshed, maybe enlightened. There are mermaids out there who want our good. There are Tinas who learn to speak while preserving a wild beauty. There are storms that are over. With love from Liberia: Aldo Benini August 2008